A recent review in the Times Literary Supplement of a new edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales predicted that the book under discussion would fill “a yawning gap” as it rescued the fairy tales from children and folklorists so that we might see the collection as a major literary work. I read this interesting, pertinent sentence over someone’s shoulder, while sitting on a plane, just as I was about to open Andrew Delbanco’s new biography of Herman Melville. Surely, the book in my lap would be setting out to do the same: rescue the author of Moby-Dick from the miles of scholarship informed by received wisdom that already surround Melville’s life and work, thereby making the great nineteenth-century writer live anew for the current generation of readers.
Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York City into a family of social connection and financial failure: The mother was a Gansevoort, both grandfathers were Revolutionary War heroes and the father died a bankrupt when Herman was 12 years old, leaving a wife and eight children to struggle on as best they could. None of the children grew up to be what is commonly called successful. Herman went to school now and then; clerked now and then; considered surveying now and then. In the same aimless way, at the age of 21 he signed on as a common seaman on a whaling ship from which, after six months at sea, he deserted in the Marquesan Islands, where he was held for some weeks by a native tribe in what he later called “indulgent captivity.” Upon his escape he slowly made his way back to America, now in possession of the experience on which his deepest self would draw for the next fifty years. He’d been gone nearly four years.
He decided to write a book about life among the Polynesian islanders. The book was called Typee, and it achieved a commercial success that, for a minute, made Melville a minor celebrity; more important, it made him realize that he was a writer. Within the next five years, he published four books–Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket–each less well received than the one before. One by one, the books moved further away from the simple adventure tale with which he had begun, but the readers of Typee did not follow.
Writing had released in Melville a passionate, brooding nature that turned ever more inward, puzzling openly over the concern that had been pressing on him since he’d gone to sea, namely, the metaphysical truth of human existence. As Babbalanja says in Mardi, “I am intent upon the essence of things, the mystery that lieth beyond…that which is beneath the seeming.” What tormented men, Melville had come to realize, was not so much the longing to believe that there is meaning in the universe, as the suspicion that behind the longing lies the fear of nothingness. At sea he had watched both the longing and the fear play themselves out fully–seen the ongoing struggle in those around him between the potential for savagery and the desire for transcendence–and he’d come to understand that the behavior Christians call civilized does not reach down to the center. Given the right circumstances, most men can demonstrate that both Good and Evil are conditional, and that the elemental forces of life are overwhelming. Wherefore, then, God and Satan?
The question obsessed him. There developed within him a moodiness that William James would trace to “the craving of the heart to believe that behind nature there is a spirit whose expression nature is.” As this craving could not be satisfied, it haunted him. Years after they’d met, Nathaniel Hawthorne, during a visit with Melville in Liverpool, wrote in his journal: “It is strange how he persists…in wandering to-and-fro over these [theological] deserts…. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other…. He has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than the rest of us.”